by Dennis Dalman
March 20 was a day of doom for the Tano and Julie Gray family of Sartell because that is the day they found out one of their two boys, 5-year-old Nathanial, is suffering from Stage 3 anaplastic large-cell lymphoma, a form of cancer.
“It came out of nowhere,” Julie said. “Our kids were always the healthiest of kids. I would never have thought in a million years this would happen. Those beginning days were really, really tough.”
But the Grays took a very deep breath and decided they would have to deal with it as best they could. And thanks to the medical staff, good friends and supporters, and a kind and caring church, they are all doing well as a strong and happy family. Their other son is 2-year-old Aaron.
Nathaniel’s lymph-node cancer is in his chest and across his inside abdomen area. He is not in pain now, despite frequent chemotherapy treatments. At one time, the pain was terrible. Before the disease was diagnosed, Nathaniel would sometimes wake up at night screaming and crying with horrible stomach pains. At first his frantic parents thought it might be constipation, and even doctors were puzzled at first. Then, after a CT scan, the nodes didn’t look right. The images were sent to the children’s oncology unit, and the dreaded diagnosis was given.
Nathaniel lost all of his hair due to chemotherapy. One day on a playground, one kid called him a bald baby. Another boy asked why he has no hair.
“It’s because I have cancer,” he said to the boy, who did not really understand.
As a show of love and solidarity, Nathaniel’s mother decided to get a buzz cut. The boy’s father and brother followed suit.
Julie said she’ll never forget the first time Nathaniel saw her with her buzz cut. He and his father had been to a ballgame in Minneapolis, having taken the North Star commuter train from Big Lake. When Julie picked them up, Nathaniel walked around the car and stopped in his tracks, beaming when he saw his bald mother. He took off his baseball cap and said, “Mom, you have hair now just like me – I mean you DON’T have hair like me!”
Nathaniel takes his chemo treatments at Children’s Hospital in the Twin Cities, but sometimes he goes to the “Short Stay” program at St. Cloud’s CentraCare Plaza, which is a blessing for the whole family as they don’t have the long travel time. He has about 15 chemo treatments spaced out about every three weeks, with 11 more treatments to go. He does not do radiation treatments.
The treatments make him tired, but other than that he is a happy, bouncing, normal boy who loves his video games, Legos and pretend games playing super-heroes. He also likes to pretend he’s a doctor and uses stuffed animals to show his grandmother how chemo is injected into a port hole and other medical information.
Nathaniel’s prognosis is very good, his mother said.
Fortunately, she works days at epromos.com in St. Cloud, and Tano works mainly nights at Merrill Corp. in Sartell. That way, someone can always be home with Nathaniel, who will start an all-immersion Spanish school in Clear Lake this September.
One of the most frustrating times was when Nathaniel came down with a case of pneumonia, then his brother also caught it and very soon so did both parents.
“That was last week, and I just started feeling like a human being again yesterday,” Julie said. “We were all on the same medication, just different levels of it. We’re fine now, fortunately.”
There is always a risk of infections for someone undergoing cancer treatments.
“Sometimes I would just like to put Nathaniel in one of those protective bubbles,” Julie said, “but that just couldn’t be done because he’d miss out on so much.”
If there is a silver lining in Nathaniel’s struggle with cancer, Julie noted, it’s the overwhelming support the family has received from so many kind people: family, friends and fellow parishioners at St. John’s Episcopal Church in St. Cloud.
“It is truly touching to see how many people help out,” Julie said.
For more about Nathaniel and his cancer journey, go to:
Nathaniel Gray was surprised just minutes before this photo was taken when he saw his mother, Julie, who had her hair buzz-cut in honor of him. Nathaniel’s father and younger brother also buzz-cut their hair as a sign of love and tribute to Nathaniel.
Nathaniel Gray and his mother snuggle for a photo.